Women scientists at forefront of COVID-19 research

Women researchers have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, with female scientists across the globe playing pivotal roles, from advancing knowledge on the virus, to developing vaccines, treating patients and assessing the pandemic’s devastating economic and social impact.

However, the health crisis has laid bare disparities in the scientific system. Girls are significantly under-represented in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at school, and women occupy fewer senior positions than men at top universities. The pandemic has widened the existing gender gap, with closed labs and increased care responsibilities for women.

“Education is one of the best ways to achieve gender equality,” says Prof Dr Bartel Van de Walle, Director of the United Nations University-MERIT (UNU-MERIT) in Maastricht. “Over the last tumultuous year, our female researchers and PhD fellows have produced several research reports and policy briefs on the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At UNU-MERIT, female researchers play a key role in working on the 2030 Agenda.

As we mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, UNRIC interviewed Racky Balde and Tatenda Zinyemba, two PhD fellows at UNU-MERIT, who have both been studying the impact of COVID-19 in Africa.

Why did you want to become a scientist?

Tatenda: In addition to enjoying problem solving, I have always been curious about why certain individuals or groups are more disadvantaged or marginalised than others.

Racky: When I was in primary school, I followed a documentary on the economic development of some Asian countries that were at the same level as my country, Senegal, in the 60s.  I was curious and puzzled and wanted to understand the process of economic development.

Why should more women and girls engage with science? 

Racky: It is essential. There are tremendous untapped capacities within women and girls that can bring about change and contribute to their countries’ economic development. Governments should allocate more funds to attract and retain girls in school, and more specifically in science.

Tatenda: Women constitute more than half of the world’s population and are endowed with the same mental qualities as men. Having more women and girls in science should just be normal.

United Nations University-MERIT PhD fellow Racky Balde © UNU/H. Peijpers
United Nations University-MERIT PhD fellow Racky Balde © UNU/H. Peijpers

Did you encounter any obstacles in your studies and career compared to your male peers? If so, what were they?

Racky: There are social norms and perceptions that women and girls cannot do well in science, particularly in some African countries. The consequence is that there is no one who believes in them. However, I was quite fortunate that my parents always believed in me and pushed me to aim higher, so during my studies, I never encountered any issues. However, career wise, although I am at the early stages, I have come to realise women must work harder and cannot negotiate pay in the same way as men.

What remains to be done?

Tatenda: To continuously advocate and protect women, particularly in spaces where they are underrepresented.

Racky: Honestly, a lot remains to be done. Social norms have to be tackled, and it starts at home. Parents should educate both girls and boys to understand that women and men share the same abilities and that no gender is above another. At school, girls should be encouraged to have a career in science. There should be social protections for impoverished parents to prevent them taking girls from schools to make them work or marry them off. At the workplace, there should be awareness sessions about bias against women, and women’s career development should be closely monitored.

Racky, your current paper focuses on the labour market effects of COVID-19 in in Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Mali. What are your main findings?

Racky: We found that workers in the informal economy tend to be harder hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Informal workers are more likely to lose their jobs and tend to experience a decrease in earnings. These findings also hold for those who work in high-risk sectors, such as restaurants, hotels, tourism, beauty salons (…) transport. Informal workers are also more likely to struggle to meet their basic needs during the pandemic.

Tatenda, can you describe your research on how COVID-19 is affecting the economy in Ghana?

Tatenda: Using 2016 data in Ghana to examine gender gaps among informal enterprises, we found that COVID-19exacerbates gender gaps, because women are the main caregivers within their families. COVID-19 restrictions may therefore affect the sales of women entrepreneurs more than men, as women entrepreneurs will have to look after their children and have other caregiving or family obligations.

What advice would you give to young women who aspire to having a career in science?

Tatenda: Go for it! If I can do it, so can you.

Racky: Stay strong and focused. The path will not be easy, but as the saying goes, growth comes with challenges. You have the ability like everyone else and with hard work you will succeed.

Building a better future

In his message for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says giving girls access to the education they deserve is critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Women and girls belong in science. Yet stereotypes have steered women and girls away from science-related fields.  It is time to recognize that greater diversity fosters greater innovation,” he concludes.

Tatenda Zinyemba, born and raised in Zimbabwe, holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs and Economics and a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. Her research focuses on inequalities in health, education, and gender. 

Racky Balde, from Senegal, holds a master’s degree in Applied Economics and a bachelor’s degree in Economics. She is passionate about economic development issues and the empowerment of the most economically vulnerable persons.

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